April 21, 2010

One on One: Apsara DiQuinzio on Bruce Conner’s LOOKING GLASS

Alongside our weekly in-gallery curator “One on One” talks, we post regular ‘one on one’ bits here on the blog. Follow the series here. Today’s post is from assistant curator of painting and sculpture, Apsara DiQuinzio. I’m tipping you off now to the ‘big reveal’ in this piece: never-before-seen pictures of the back of Bruce Conner’s LOOKING GLASS, below. Apsara’s talk is tomorrow night.

Bruce Conner, LOOKING GLASS, 1964. Collection San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco; Gift of the Modern Art Council.

As a curator, I’m frequently asked the question “who’s your favorite artist?”, usually when meeting someone for the first time, and as every curator knows this is an impossible question to answer. I typically respond by asking “from what period?” or “I don’t have one favorite, I have many” (which is, of course, true). Sometimes I pick an artist I have worked with, would like to work with, or about whose work I have recently become impassioned. On many occasions, however, I have simply responded: “Bruce Conner.” He is my consistent fallback. I also know many other curators, art historians, and artists who I could imagine might answer the same, and I am not the first person to make such a confession here. The preponderance of art professionals I know who deeply admire Conner’s work is interesting, ironic even, given Conner notoriously cared little for curators, or the art world in general. In fact, he spent much of his artistic life eschewing museums, galleries, and collectors because he found them impossible to work with. Indeed, as is oft-noted, in 1967 he exiled himself from the “art business” for several years, supporting himself by working variously as a ticket clerk at a movie theater, a salesman at a “knickknack” shop, and as a janitor.(1) And it is no secret that Conner had an, at times, contentious relationship with this institution, most notably in the early 1970s, when he refused a retrospective at the museum (then the San Francisco Museum of Art), because he and then-director Henry Hopkins could not come to an agreement on how the exhibition should be organized. Fortunately, however, SFMOMA has steadfastly collected his work, and we now possess a significant concentration (just over thirty works) of his uniquely diverse output: assemblages, collages, drawings, films, photographs, and prints (four of which are currently on view).

Protean and hybrid, Conner’s artistic practice embraced flux and disintegration. His predilection for entropy, violence, and disrepair can be witnessed throughout his entire body of work, but particularly in the assemblages made from a conglomeration of dirty and eroded found objects that he intentionally left in “their rotten, lost state.”(2) This aesthetic counterposes the slick, fetishistic style of mainstream advertising, especially the glossy magazines from which he excised pictures to use in his collages. He insisted, for instance, that his sculptures not be dusted, “Any dust that is there is important to the work,” Conner stated.(3) Moreover, he often revisited objects that remained within his reach over extended periods of time: “I never considered any of these collages and assemblages to be finished, they were dated at the time I hung them on the wall.”(4) This organic, open-ended approach also applied to many of his films, which he re-edited on multiple occasions, reconstituting footage from old films into new ones. THREE SCREEN RAY (2006), currently on view in SFMOMA’s media arts gallery, is an exceptional example. It takes Conner’s COSMIC RAY (1961), set to Ray Charles’s hit song “What’d I Say,” as its point of departure, and in it one can also identify familiar elements from MEA CULPA (1981).

Bruce Conner, THREE SCREEN RAY (still), 2006. Three-channel black-and-white video projection with sound, 5:14 min. Courtesy of the Conner Family Trust © Conner Family Trust

Conner insisted on opening-up the object to the vagaries of time, even if that meant leaving it “vulnerable” to an errant visitor’s touch. He meticulously built up the tactile surfaces of his assemblages, producing a strong haptic tension that often elicited a desire to touch. Referring to the 1960s, Conner reflects, “At that time my relationship to my work was that people who would become involved enough in the work to actually touch these collages and assemblages, had to be emotionally or conceptually involved to a point where they were like participants.”(5) This is not to say that Conner wanted people to touch his work; he did not encourage this, but that physical tension was an essential aspect. In fact, after seeing a “Do Not Touch” sign placed next to his painting DARK BROWN (1959) in SFMOMA’s galleries in 1964, and the curator’s subsequent refusal to take it down, Conner made a conceptual work about the dispute, aptly titled TOUCH/DO NOT TOUCH (1964).(6) The piece consists of twelve prestretched canvases that Conner himself never handled, instead enlisting his friend the artist John Pearson to apply the black transfer letters “DO NOT TOUCH” to the center of twelve preprimed canvases. For the thirteenth canvas, Conner himself set the letters to read “TOUCH.” He then paradoxically placed a Plexiglas vitrine over it, so that his directive was impeded by its own presentation.

Bruce Conner TOUCH/DO NOT TOUCH, 1964. Primed canvases with transfer lettering, one with plexiglass. Thirteen canvases: 40 x 30 in each. Collection Oakland Museum, Oakland, California.

Bruce Conner, A MOVIE (filmstrip detail), 1958, 16mm film, black and white, sound; 12 min. Courtesy of the Conner Family Trust © Conner Family Trust

That same year, while still in Brookline (before moving back to San Francisco), Conner also made LOOKING GLASS, widely believed to be his last assemblage. Like the artist’s first film A MOVIE (1958), also entirely made from found material, in this work one encounters a visual stream of pictures—“an optical overload.”(7) Composed of erotic images cut from girlie magazines, which he “glued-down” and stapled onto board, the work inundates the viewer with an idealized, feminine stereotype, making it difficult to retain any one in particular. Conner has cited that part of his inspiration behind making A MOVIE was to work the “forbidden image” of “a nude woman in profile taking off the last of her clothes” into a larger film.(8) That image came in the form of a piece of filmstrip given to him in 1950 by his friend Lee Streiff.

Conner would return to this staged, “prurient” image of femininity—one fashioned for male desire—repeatedly throughout his career through use of stock film footage and other found material. The manufactured image of femininity widely circulated in American popular culture contrasts with the more personal, subjective depictions he proffers of his friends Jay DeFeo and Toni Basil in his films, THE WHITE ROSE (1967) and BREAKAWAY (1966), respectively—unique in that they were both shot by the artist himself. Conner’s use of the “forbidden image” perhaps assumes its most consummate form in LOOKING GLASS (its celluloid counterpart is MARILYN TIMES FIVE, 1968-73). In LOOKING GLASS, one encounters the same critical overture Conner employs in his films as he thrusts the mass-produced, American representation of “woman” back onto its own collective gaze. In effect, the work magnifies our own obsessive, visual consumption of the subject. (He is renowned for doing the same with war and violence in other films and sculptures.) The pieces of a magnifying shaving mirror Conner sets at eye level suggests the viewer’s role as a complicit observer—a participant in the theatrical field of the object. Conner adds dozens of feminine signifiers: a gnarl of panty hose (his signature material) in the lower right corner, jewelry, fake fur, a black patent-leather high heel, a beaded purse, a silk slip, an empty heart-shaped box of chocolates, underwear, and a hidden piece of a doll that recites the phrases “Let’s have a party” “I like you”; and Let’s be friends” when its ring is pulled.(9) Presiding over the work in the middle is a sculptural exquisite corpse, rendered with the hands of a mannequin and a blowfish for a head—the inevitable monstrous result of such excessive cultural objectification.

Until recently LOOKING GLASS has been set under a vitrine. While installing The Anniversary Show the curators, acting in cooperation with our conservators, removed the Plexi cover, restoring the work to its more intended “vulnerable” state—a state the artist would have undoubtedly preferred. Upon removing the vitrine, our conservator of objects, Michelle Barger also took pictures of the back of the work, which like many of Conner’s assemblages, is also covered in images. In the spirit of Conner’s desire for the viewer to be able to see all sides of the work, we make them available for you to see here, for what we believe is the first time:

I hope you can join me this Thursday night at 6:30, when I speak about this work and one of my “favorite” artists for our One-on-One program series in SFMOMA’s second floor galleries.

—Apsara DiQuinzio, assistant curator of painting and sculpture

[1] Joan Rothfuss, “Escape Artist,” in 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II, Peter Boswell, et al. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1999): 167. [2] Kevin Hatch, “’It has to do with the theater’: Bruce Conner’s Ratbastards,” October 127 (Winter 2009): p. 111. [3] Interview with Bruce Conner, J.W. Shank, Carol Rosset, and Graham Beal, Friday August 15, 1986, SFMOMA archive files. [4] Bruce Conner, “A Conversation with Bruce Conner and Robert Dean,” Bruce Conner, exh. cat. (Santa Monica: Michael Kohn Gallery, 1990). [5] Interview with Bruce Conner, J.W. Shank, et. al, op. cit. [6] Rothfusss, op cit, 180. [7] Peter Boswell, “Theater of Light and Shadow”, in 2000 BC, op. cit., p. 27. [8] Bruce Conner, “How I Invented Electricity,” SFMOMA archives. This essay will be published in October 2010, in the forthcoming anthology: Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000, eds. Steve Anker, Kathy Geritz, and Steve Seid (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2010. [9] Interview with Bruce Conner, J.W. Shank, et al., op. cit.

Comments (12)

  • Thank you for this lively and impassioned discussion on Conner. As someone who wrote a master’s thesis on BREAKAWAY, am currently writing on MARILYN TIMES FIVE, and am beginning research on a dissertation on Conner and found footage, I find the ideas and interpretations put forth here very engaging and sensitive. I hope to continue the debate through my own work!

    I have also wondered about which films Conner was referring to in that interview reprinted in MacDonald’s book–I think COSMIC RAY is an obvious choice, though I think Conner would have liked it to remain a possibility for many of his films.

    Looking forward to finally seeing the exhibition at the end of this week.

    cheers, Johanna

  • This is a fun question. My vote is COSMIC RAY and MARILYN TIMES FIVE. His use of the word purient is key. I don’t think there is anything “purient” about BREAKAWAY. In fact, it’s the opposite. He shows you the cultural construct which is what makes it “purient,” and then he shows you the personal, subjective side, which is anything but. MARILYN shows the recumbant female nude, and BREAKAWAY shows Toni standing up, dancing no less! She represents the frenetic, uncontrollable side of female sexuality, which in this context is presented in terms of independence. It is impossible to circumscribe her body with the gaze (because of his amazing editing). It’s my favorite of his films (well, CROSSROADS just blows me away too.) Those of you who haven’t seen it yet, go see it again while you still can!

    I’m looking forward to this interview. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  • Brecht Andersch says:

    I’m quite willing to concede MARILYN TIMES FIVE to the critique side of the equation, Apsara. In fact, I think you’re pretty dead on, except it’s possible Conner wasn’t referring in the interview to this film, which I, for one, find disappointing in the erotic dept. As a male fan of the real Marilyn, I’m always disturbed by the accuracy of Conner and his subject’s simulacrum: ultimately the synthetic nature of the enterprise is the predominant theme, and interestingly mirrors (or possibly meditates on?) MM’s story — after suffering an abusive childhood (at the hands of both women and men), she found power in manipulating the fantasies of men in life and on-screen before meeting her eventual tragic demise (whatever the nature of that really was). It’s one of the great American mythic tragedies. There is a tragic dimension, too, for men, in the whole genre of the peep show, or pornography in general. These play to the biologically-driven male tendency to intertwine objectification with romance. As in MARILYN TIMES FIVE, it’s all over in a moment, and emptiness ensues. But, yes, the wheels of commerce go on… (Francis Ford Coppola’s early film You’re a Big Boy Now deals with this explicitly and brilliantly.) Let me say also — I wouldn’t like to see these biological drives paved over or reformed in our social lives (as if this were possible) — they contribute directly to the continuance of the species. A big part of the work of the facilitation of society for both men and women is to make room and allowances for the gender-based characteristics and functioning of the opposite sex — the failure of members of either sex to deal with fellow humans as human (that is, sentient animals) is the cause of so much calamity…

    So, the question is: which are the two (“designed to excite prurient interest”)?

    My votes are BREAKAWAY and COSMIC RAY. Both of these enmesh eroticism with an ecstatic mystical dimension. COSMIC RAY, of course, also has a strong element of social critique, and you’ve made a strong case for this in BREAKAWAY, too, in how it serves as vessel for Toni Basil’s persona and voice. VIVIAN also mixes eroticism and critique (in this case, of the art world). From a perspective which is admittedly male, my take is that all these elements fuse, and are reconcilable in Conner’s incredibly complex work.

    In other words, when you say “part of Conner’s brilliance is that he evades literal readings and makes you the viewer do the work”, again, you are dead on. My suspicion is that — however opposed our views are — we are both to some extent accurate. Conner’s work has that kind of inexhaustible Largeness.

    I’ll be interested to hear your response to the interview in Canyon Cinema. What Conner has to say there definitely adds to the complexity and ambiguity one sees in his work — he has some scathing comments re. San Francisco PC culture, for example…

  • So, this is a very interesting quote that you leave us with Brecht, and although I am loathe to comment on it without reading the entire interview (which I will do stat) I have to believe that the quote is both true and not true. True in the sense that it is impossible to watch MARILYN TIMES FIVE without being excited “pruriently,” but untrue in that the film is a deliberate, exacerbated construct female sexuality. He makes it so pleasurable that after the third, fourth, and fifth time watching her roll around in front of the close-up, her objectification becomes uncomfortable to watch (at least it does for this feminist). He toys with the viewer, exciting him while also suggesting that this woman’s every gesture and pose is entirely constructed for the “male” gaze and for the camera. She is the classic commercial seductress who entices you to forget that she is also trying to sell you that bottle of coca-cola gingerly propped up in her cleavage. Moreoever, the “unreal” becomes hyperbolized. It is not Marilyn that we see, though she is a dead ringer; it is a Marilyn imposter who proffers one product after another. Thus the “unreal” gets multiplied and layered. She is an agent of American advertizing: unreal female figure + unreal marilyn = exaggerated form of American commerce. Two untruths equal a truth. I have to read that comment with irony, as I believe he would want you to read it. But again, part of Conner’s brilliance is that he evades literal readings and makes you the viewer do the work.

  • Brecht Andersch says:

    Thanks for affirming the value of affect in art, Rudolf! So important, and yet so often ignored in the realm of professional dialogue on art. Would anyone really take the time to create or partake of art without emotional investment? And if they would, is what results legitimate?

    In re-reading Bruce Conner’s interview in Scott MacDonald’s Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor, I found the comment by Bruce below, re. Canyon Cinema issues, which bears some relation to the discussion:

    “At the last meeting I went to… Elizabeth Sher and some other people were talking about the content of films and pornography, and Elizabeth said something like, ‘I can’t believe that there’s any film at Canyon Cinema designed to excite prurient interest.’ I said “I disagree! I’ve made at least two of them!”

  • Rudolf Frieling says:

    What a wonderful conversation on art and its emotions! Absolutely fantastic! Just a reminder: “Breakaway” is still on view for one more week, starting on May 1, “Mea Culpa” will replace it accompanied by bonus tracks from Bay Area artists Anne Colvin, John Davis, Kota Ezawa, and Anne McGuire.

  • Brecht Andersch says:

    Thanks for the clarification. I’d agree to some extent with most of what you’ve said, but to me, the majority of Conner’s work is about an inner realm — his. Whatever references he makes to outer political and social reality are all about how they effect HIS psyche, as in REPORT (he’s providing a report on how those events, as portrayed on television, are affecting him, compounded by his contemplation of both how the media is disseminating this material to the country as a whole, and what effect this will have on its collective psyche). While on a certain level, yes, BREAKAWAY and THE WHITE ROSE represent “a complicated celebration of female subjectivity”, they are less about their apparent subjects than Conner’s own inner feminine, expressions of, and embodiments of — especially in the case of BREAKAWAY — his anima (which in Conner’s case, should be written ANIMA). I can’t imagine anyone (even Conner) spending the number of artisanal hours required to make something like BREAKAWAY on a project he considered a mere “portrait” (I’m sure it took far longer to edit than any painted portrait in history ever took to create, at least in terms of manhours put in) This film, perhaps more than any of his works, is a profound expression of Self. To do some clarification myself, my earlier remarks re. the girlie mag imagery (to which I’d also add the found stag film shots) aren’t meant to say that Conner is just endorsing some kind of simplistic, surface level vision of male heterosexuality — tho that layer is there (and as someone who enjoys this level of the work, I find it sad to see it devalued). These images, too, though far less complex than those of BREAKAWAY, are anima images, lures for both artist and viewer to the contemplation of the inner rose — the soul (understood either literally or as a metaphor for an inherent part of the psychic structure). “Unreal female figure” is by no means equivalent to “debased stereotype” (stereotype of what, exactly? The women photographed, or the corresponding male sexuality to which they’re presumably supposed to engage?) Although Conner’s work registers the social, it is largely concerned with inner psychological and spiritual issues.

    But — whatever disagreement I’d have with you about the contents of Conner’s work, this is my favorite blog post of any kind, any time, anywhere. The reproduction of the back of LOOKING GLASS is something I’ve waited many years to see, and is just stunning, and I find much of what you have to say about it, and Conner’s work in general, very enriching — I guess that’s why I’m so engaged. THANK YOU!

  • Let me clarify, I do not think that all of Conner’s work can be summarily boiled down to a critique of American mass culture (though much of it is) and certainly I do not mean to suggest that desire and his comments on culture at large should or can be extricated from one another–much of it is deeply enmeshed and conflicted, as it is in the world around us. I do think, however, Conner is most critical when he is using found footage (or materials). This is the point I tried to make above. When he is shooting the films himself, as he is in BREAKAWAY and THE ROSE, what manifests is more of a complicated celebration of female subjectivity. Both films are very poignant, almost touching portraits of his (female) friends. He presents them as empowered subjects, not as the debased stereotypes he finds proliferated in girlie magazines and movies. This is an important distinction. Tony Basil’s lyrics are telling in BREAKAWAY, her song about female independence: “I want to breakaway from all these chains that bind…” And it is her voice, her own words, to which she dances. In the WHITE ROSE, it is also very telling that we never really get a clear, frontal view of Jay DeFeo’s face, it is always seen from oblique angles. Rather her work, her painting, receives lavish close-up attention with the camera. These celebratory portraits are striking contrasts from the, as Conner himself describes, “unreal female figure,” seen in the found footage films. And, yes, it is Conner’s unique and wonderful ability to imbue everything with mystery.

  • Brecht Andersch says:

    @Vance: You’ve an excellent eye for fetish gear; a wonderful thing to bracket…

    @Apsara: I concede much of the work to the “critique” side of the equation, but where’s the critique in BREAKAWAY and LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS? Also, given that the Rat Bastard Protective Association would imply (to some extent) identification and complicity with a Rat Bastard mind-state, it would seem that a lot of Conner’s critique-oriented work is deeply ambiguous. It’s overcharged with superabundant emotion, which (in my view) can’t ultimately be dissected, and must finally be understood as an amalgamated mass of psycho-sexual/spiritual/social meditation and expression which can’t be comprehended rationally or summed up in words. BLACK DAHLIA, for example, comes to mind… Like the work of David Lynch, much of Conner is about mystery.

  • Vance Maverick says:

    Bracketing the question of whether Conner was doing anything more here than anthologizing pornography (maybe so!), I’d like to observe that the hands in black gloves are a wonderful touch. Is the rubber protecting the artwork from damage, or the curators from contamination?

  • I agree that the line between “affirmation” and critique is difficult to draw with Conner, and I believe that is very intentional on his part–it keeps you guessing–but ultimately I cling to the critique; especially considering the assemblages (the Ratbastards) originate out of his critique of what he saw to be a highly commodified superstructure.

  • Brecht Andersch says:

    OMFG, so beautiful!!! Bruce Conner has long been my favorite artist as well, and LOOKING GLASS my favorite of his non-film works. Until his death, I’d often cite him as the greatest living artist (and really, isn’t he still? Both living, and the greatest?), and always found his contentious relationship with the museum world most interesting in the light of the museum world’s contentious relationship with film — he was, after all the GREATEST-EVER film editor.

    This post is very perceptive, but I’d like to venture the opinion that there’s as much affirmation in Conner’s work as critique. LOOKING GLASS, as do many of the films, contains an endorsement of heterosexual male desire, and a ringing declaration of “vive la différence”, sentiments finding a welcome home in American culture only in the men’s girlie mags from which he partially constructed his sculpture. Conner’s vision ratifies the cosmos he found within himself, in all its horror, glory, anger, and love.

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